BUILDING LIFE INTO WORSHIP:
SSM (Self-Supporting Minister) approach
This paper was presented at
a conference on the Reformed traditions of worship
held at Westminster
in September 2007
by the Cheshunt Institute of
‘Self-Supporting Minister’ (SSM) is the title now
used by the United Reformed Church for those who practise a
‘secular’ profession and are also Ministers of Word and Sacrament.
One facet of good SSM practice occurs when the SSM
becomes a vibrant connection between his or her professional life and
interests and the worship and life of the church. The same is true of
authentically lay leadership of worship.
My professional field is ‘built environment’ which
at various times has comprised working for building companies and
industry organisations in conjunction with associated professions,
teaching Built Environment at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford,
and in semi-retirement being minister of a rural church with
historically significant buildings.
My worship-leading role occurs on about half the
Sundays in the year, in earlier years on a visiting basis and currently
as ‘the local minister’. My approach is to use my built environment
experience as raw material. The Reformed part of me values the freedom
and space our tradition gives to worship leaders, while the Ecumenical
part of me delights in the wealth of relevant material available from
This paper reflects on experience in:
elements of worship
buildings/grounds as settings for worship.
to comment briefly on four aspects:
- Themes and stories to which I
- The use of immediate raw
- Some special worship projects
RECURRING THEMES AND STORIES
One of these concerns the matter of trust. I once
worked with an inter-company research committee. Two of the members,
managing directors of their companies, discovered that they were both
Methodist Local Preachers. Some Anglicans and Roman Catholics came out
of the woodwork. The whole committee – Christian, humanist, agnostic
and atheist - challenged the organisation, and me in particular, to try
to ‘do something’ about trust and trustworthiness in the commercial
complexities of the building industry.
Part of the large scale industry problem was addressed
by a government assignment undertaken by Sir Michael Latham, a leader in
the construction group of MP’s and an Anglican Reader.
I myself gave a paper to ARCOM, the Association of
university-based Researchers in Construction Management. A young
lecturer took a keen interest. Recently, some 15 years later, he told a
colleague of mine that that day had changed the whole direction of his
research and teaching. I don’t know whether he has Christian
commitments but the colleague who took the trouble to pass on his
I always make trust and trustworthiness a topic in my ethics and values
seminars. Last year a young Muslim woman architectural student from
said to me and her student
group, ‘Trust, that is Islam, our faith. I see now how my faith and my
an inspiring story of the Christian and other religions doing their job
and so telling it has a place in worship.
OF IMMEDIATE RAW EXPERIENCE
Out of some ten years worth of sermon scripts I
recently selected thirty that covered the liturgical year using the raw
experience of a university building lecturer. Here is the essence of
just one. I am speaking to one of our small URC congregations. On this
particular day I am vulnerable and need them and the university
community needs their prayers.
It is Advent a time of promise and repentance. The
word translated as repentance is metanoia,
`a change of mode of thought and feeling'.
Over the last ten days three things
have happened which have led me and others into new modes of thought and
I took a group of students to meet some architects in
and to visit an out of town site. These architects were young and their
thinking fresh. The students came back and said this is new, good and
We went on to Ely Cathedral, the
on a December afternoon. The guide told us about the glorious blue that
once covered the walls. ‘Away with Puritanism’, I cried! A change in
mode of thought and feeling.
A few days later we had an
accidental student death on the railway. His tutor said to me, ‘This
I had no time or energy to
prepare sermons. All I could do was share the experiences of metanoia.
Let me add one other small example. Recently a
congregation got a passing summary of a one-hour student seminar on
values, ethics and Olympic sites. In the seminar, Greek students talked
about Olympic origins and the modern
games; a Chinese talked about
Beijing 2008 and the birds nest stadium; Londoners talked about 2012
compared with 1948; and someone talked about
. The universe of the university became for a moment incarnate in the
SPECIAL WORSHIP PROJECTS
In the 1990’s
and Society Committee led by
Jeanne Armourundertook some weekend projects. On Friday evenings we
invited to dinner some people knowledgeable on the subject. On Saturdays
we made visits and on Saturday nights we prepared morning worship for
our host church based on what we had discussed and discovered. At
Stowmarket we studied Transport and the sermon asked:
does a Church and Society Committee need to spend a weekend meeting
people such as road designers and safety advisers, bus and railway
managers, port and airport chaplains, police, freight hauliers,
economists and theologians with a special knowledge of transport? And
even more, why spend a Saturday afternoon walking through the
construction site of the Stowmarket inner relief road?
The short answer was, ‘Because this making and
remaking of the world matters and we care’ - or, in a word,
teaching nuns has produced a marvellous painting illustrating Isaiah’s
‘Prepare the way’. The road is the A12 and the
viaduct under which I walk to University every day. The original was on
display during our local Advent retreat at the school. I used the card
next day in the URC Sunday service.
I once led a weekend school for the East Anglian
Ministerial Training Course, about theology, ministry and building.
Happily there was a building site next door to the Ely conference centre.
In the Saturday morning worship the chaplain included Julian of
Norwich’s hazelnut. ‘What is this?’ ‘It is all that is made’.
I borrowed a brick from the site and unpacked it: ‘Brick, clay,
geology, extraction, reinstatement of pits, brick manufacturers, work of the brick, its weight, warmth, colour, bricklayer’s
skill, building designer’s skill, in time the brick will return to the
earth, clay to clay’. Nearly all that is made is present in a brick!
elements of worship
I will comment briefly on:
My sacramental marker is Teilhard de Chardin because
he was both professional geologist and Catholic priest. He writes:
of earth, steep yourself in.... matter. Never.....say to matter, “I
have seen enough of you; I have surveyed your mysteries and have taken
from them enough food for my thought to last me for ever”. .....Never
say, “Matter is accursed, matter is evil”: for there has come one
who said, “This is my body”.
The nuance of this always affects my approach to the
offering of bread and wine and sometimes I make it explicit.
In a Teilhard mood I wrote and used this Christmas Eve
Communion prayer to encapsulate my thinking about ‘offertory’:
table is our
the holy place to which the star guides us.
is the place where we see the glory of God.
is the place where for us peace from God's own heart is given to the
is the place to which we bring our shepherding, the duties and
responsibilities of our lives, that they may be gathered up into the
mystery and miracle and meaning of the incarnation.
is the place to which we bring all human learning and riches and
kingship that they may be made holy.
is the place to which we bring our gifts of bread and wine that God may
become incarnate for us.
is the place where we celebrate in sign and symbol the whole
I love Evensong but I do tease the Anglicans about
making us all into ‘miserable offenders’. It is good to have the
freedom to come to confession in a more open, Reformed way:
we offer to you for blessing all that is good in the work done in this
town. We picture its High Street and out of town stores, offices in
large blocks and on small unnoticed corners, its hospitals and health
centres, its places of entertainment, of education, its places of
industry, manufacture and construction... Lord, in these and in every
place where good work is done, may it be blessed by you.
not all our work is good. Some is done less well than it should be and
some that is done should not be done at all, for it brings about no
good. For bad work and wrongful work, we ask your forgiveness....
I made an analysis of building in Rejoice
and Sing. Some 150 of the 647 hymns - 25% - could be said to
resonate with building. The main themes include:
and building the earth
house of clay etc
built in Christ
that protect or confine
houses, roads and paths as images
and urban deprivation
temples and cities
Under ‘everyday buildings’ I warm more to Brian
Wren’s ‘Let streets and homes with praises ring’ than I do to AN
Other’s, ‘to the skies our monuments of folly soar’. As a teacher
of Malaysian students I cannot accept that the Petronas twin towers in
are naive follies. We all need to evaluate the planning, design,
economic and spirituality aspects of them and all similar structures.
buildings/grounds as settings for worship
comments in this section relate to:
- Sacred and simple places
- Symbolic places
AND SIMPLE PLACES
church of which I am currently minister, Little Baddow URC founded
formally in 1661, going back much further, is this year celebrating the
300th anniversary of the present Chapel building. It is the
simplest of meeting houses with beautiful churchyard and gardens.
Sometimes on Sunday morning we go outside to read the Psalm or Gospel to
help make connections with the ‘outdoor-ness’ of the text. We also
take time to wander. It is a way of doing the peace – peace with each
other, with creation and with God.
part of the anniversary, Brenda Hooson has published her five year
natural history diary of the churchyard and manse garden. She says
‘Our churchyard, with a little careful thought and management can
become a haven of peace.....’ and
adds ‘in 1998-99 it won nationwide acclaim with its appearance on a TV
Songs of Praise special, Sacred
congregation has shown me that people, building and grounds are
inextricably linked in a way that comes close to the Orthodox concept
expressed by Christos Yannaras:
the body of the faithful which comes together in the church building to
constitute and manifest the Church, the Kingdom of God and the new
creation of grace, is not simply housed in this architectural
construction, but forms with it a unified space of life and an event of
life. The building joins the people in celebrating the Eucharist of
creation........ The building and the people together.... compose the
universal liturgy of the Church, the manifestation of Christ’s body.
Let me balance that with a contribution from the
Reformed tradition. While on holiday in Rome Bernard Thorogood sketched
the dome of St Peter’s and then commented: ‘Somehow the size and the
grandeur are too much… I wonder if the focus of the world church ought
to be a very simple room, quiet and modest ……’.
Of such simplicity is the Chapel, or Saxon cathedral, of St
Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell on the
coast not far from Little
Baddow. Here St Cedd landed in the 654 on his missionary journey south
is a major ecumenical pilgrimage every July with a service outdoors
beside the Chapel. Whether on the big summer pilgrimage or on a solitary
winter one, this is the most powerful ‘sacred place’ I know.
I take just one example. Chelmsford Cathedral is
relatively small and beautifully modernised and appointed. Our
university graduation ceremonies are held there over a week –
Business, Health, Education, and Technology Faculties. At the end of the
week Chaplaincy invites everyone back for a service of Thanksgiving and
Dedication. The building unites the professional graduation aspect with
the worshipful thanksgiving and dedication.
At first the graduations used to be held facing the
back of the Cathedral. Now, as in the service, new graduates, their
families and friends face the front, the altar for the Sacrament and the
albos for reading and preaching the Word. That’s metanoia
in itself! If the Reformers believed that all professions can be
vocations, their vision is being fulfilled here each year!
I hope this rapid survey has conveyed something of my
enthusiasm for connecting built environment, one of the most fascinating
and basic facets of human life, with Christian worship in a Reformed
mode but wide open ecumenically. It
often seems hit and miss but I believe it is real life being built into